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Censored by a Press Freedom Hero and Other Musings on Arun Shourie
By ROHAN OBEROI
Rohan Oberoi studied physics at Cornell University and subsequently took up software engineering.
Parabaas, Jun. 1, 2000
Photo: Rohan Oberoi
Life is full of ironies. Arun Shourie, a minister in the present B.J.P. government in India, and sometime editor of The Indian Express newspaper, came to Boston this summer to accept a prestigious award.
With a select group of fifty men and women from all over the world, of whom a few can without exaggeration be called twentieth century heroes, Shourie had been awarded the title of 'Press Freedom Hero' by the International Press Institute.
The work that won him the award dates to the 1980s, when his newspaper crusaded against corruption and high-handedness in government. His crowning moment came in 1988, when he publicly and successfully defied the Rajiv Gandhi government's infamous 'Anti-Defamation Law,' which had tried to restrict the freedom of the press.
Hours after addressing a session of the I.P.I.'s World Congress in downtown Boston this May, though, Shourie delivered a lecture in an auditorium at M.I.T. There, after he delivered a short lecture, the audience booed him with cries of 'Censorship! Censorship!'
From press freedom hero to censor in a matter of a few hours: how did Arun Shourie bridge the gap?
The question is made more piquant by the fact that Shourie was the only icon of press freedom selected from India. Recipients of the award from other countries included men like Adam Michnik, the famous Polish dissident, and the late Argentinean journalist Jacobo Timerman, author of 'Prisoner without a name, cell without a number.'
The story is best understood as a clash of two drastically different mindsets. While Shourie's invitation to M.I.T. came ostensibly from the M.I.T. Indian student club, Sangam, a non-political umbrella group that organises many events in the Boston-Cambridge area, his lecture was managed largely by two rather different organisations: the Overseas Friends of the B.J.P. (O.F.B.J.P.) and the India Association of Greater Boston (I.A.G.B.).
Like many of the great American universities, M.I.T. takes the Western tradition of scholarly debate and dissent seriously. Students take it for granted that M.I.T. lectures and discussions will be frank, freewheeling, and intellectually interesting. Tradition also calls for audience question time at the end of a lecture.
The B.J.P.-friendly organisers of Shourie's talk, on the other hand, were having none of that. These good fellows (none of whom seem to have been M.I.T. students) decided that Shourie's talk would be a lecture in the strictest sense of the word. So they handed paper and pencils out to the audience before the talk, telling them to write their questions down and hand them up.
Shourie then gave his talk, which was ostensibly about 'Terrorism.' He outlined his view that Pakistan is nothing but a giant reservoir of Jihad, that India is under attack from an international Islamic conspiracy, and that 'we must be ruthless' in dealing with this.
Curiously, even though this was only a few weeks after the Indian press had exposed the actions of Shourie's B.J.P. government in killing five innocent men in Kashmir and falsely accusing them of being terrorists, Shourie said nothing about state terrorism.
By one of life's ironic coincidences, it was Shourie's own old paper, The Indian Express, which in an editorial on April 11, 2000, had denounced the act of state terror. 'The army in Kashmir killed five men claiming they were militants who had conducted the massacre of 35 Sikhs in Chati Singhpura,' it wrote.
Yet, three weeks later, Shourie devoted an entire hour to the subject of terrorism without mentioning this.
At the end of his speech, the fun began. The organisers screened out any questions even indirectly critical of Shourie, and instead read out questions of such mindless inanity and inoffensiveness that the affair began to seem more like a B.J.P. party conclave than an M.I.T. lecture.
After a series of these questions ('Mr. Shourie, How can India defeat Pak-sponsored terrorism?,' 'Mr. Shourie, How can Indian Muslims be reformed?'), the organisers declared the lecture over.
That was when the trouble started. Several people whose critical questions had been screened out raised cries of 'Censorship!,' forcing Shourie to answer at least one of their questions.
As one M.I.T. graduate student later put it on Sangam's mailing list, 'The questions asked were not only censored ones, but also inane ones. the whole thing was an insult to our and I think to Mr. Shourie's intelligence.'
But Shourie apparently never saw anything insulting to his intelligence in receiving a collection of cloying questions that did nothing but restate his own views. Nor did he find it strange that this was happening at one of the world's premier institutions of higher learning.
In fact, he was so taken aback and surprised at the uproar that he explained to the audience that 'leftists' often try to disrupt his talks by coming and stationing themselves around the hall to make their protests look spontaneous.
Since I was one of those shouting 'Censorship!,' I now felt triply hard done by. I had sat politely through Shourie's talk, raising not a murmur, while he expounded on how Islam and Muslims are the enemies of India. Then I had listened, just as quietly, while his B.J.P. chamchas selected for him a series of inane and inoffensive questions, passing over all the critical and interesting questions that I knew had been handed up. And now I was accused of being part of a Leftist conspiracy, even though I had come on my own and was no Leftist.
A man who comes to M.I.T. and expects to find the sort of cloying adulation he receives from his party cadres back home is one very far gone from the spirit of free expression, press freedom hero though he may be. And one who compounds his error with paranoid conspiracy theories - well, what shall we say about him.
But in a backhanded sort of way, Shourie did achieve something good for lectures at M.I.T. After the resulting uproar on Sangam's mailing list, one of the student group's officers, Mahesh Kumar, announced that Sangam would no longer allow outside groups like O.F.B.J.P. and I.A.G.B. to run talks at MIT sponsored by Sangam. Instead, only M.I.T. students from Sangam will handle speaker introductions and question sessions.
Looking back, there was something very surreal about choosing Arun Shourie as a Press Freedom Hero. The International Press Institute probably did so because, like many outsiders, they aren't very familiar with India.
In 1988 it might have been appropriate. But in 2000 Shourie sits as a B.J.P. member in India's Union Cabinet, which includes Ministers from the B.J.P.'s electoral allies, the Shiv Sena.
The Shiv Sena, it may be recalled, is the same party whose members
- In 1992, publicly threatened the resident editor of the Baroda newspaper Sandesh for his articles critical of the Shiv Sena. The editor, Dinesh Pathak, was stabbed to death six months later.
- In 1995, burned copies of the Indian magazine Outlook and threatened its distributors, because the magazine had published an opinion poll that showed that people in Kashmir largely do not want to be part of India.
- In 1996, attacked and vandalised the offices of the newspaper Mahanagar, which is critical of the Shiv Sena. Six Shiv Sena activists were arrested.
To honour as a press freedom hero a man who has voluntarily joined a political alliance with thugs and press-baiters like these does, anyone must admit, seem a little strange! I would love to hear what the International Press Institute has to say about this.
The final nail in the coffin of Arun Shourie's commitment to free expression must, of course, be his own writings concerning the freedom of expression of missionaries and evangelicals.
As far back as 1994, Shourie argued that India should restrict missionaries' freedom of speech. His language was laced with the same scare tactics that censors and autocrats the world over have used to justify the abridgment of popular freedoms.
'In a country the very survival of which is in such jeopardy,' Shourie wrote, 'in a country the territorial integrity of which is being assailed by murderous campaigns stoked in the name of religion, why should the right to practice and propagate religion not be subject to the requirements of the security of the State, to the national interest?'
Just before he was inducted into the B.J.P.-Shiv Sena Union Cabinet in November 1999, Shourie published another article, 'The Pope Dispels All Doubts,' arguing that the Pope's calls to preach Christianity in Asia proved that 'the apprehensions which were being expressed [by Hindu right-wingers] about the Church's plans and stratagems' are not 'just figments manufactured to justify persecution.'
In his characteristic style, Shourie dissected in detail a proclamation of the Pope to emerge with a rather unsurprising fact: that the Catholic Church believes in conversion, believes that Christianity is the only true religion, and wants to see the whole world, including India, converted to Christianity.
And then he used this banality to attack the claims of persecution of Christians made by 'secularists' and 'missionary apologists.' Is it any wonder, with men like Shourie in government, that India saw a continuation in 2000 of the pattern of attacks on Christian churches and missionaries that had been going on since the accession of the B.J.P. government to power in 1998?
To anyone who truly believes in free expression and the freedom of conscience, to believe in the exclusive truth of one's own religion (or to believe anything else), and to preach it to anyone who will listen, is the right of all men and women, Christian or otherwise. These rights are fundamental, and enumerated in Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But Shourie wants them abridged in the interest of 'the security of the State' and 'the national interest.'
And this man is a press freedom hero? I really don't think so.